Whew! Yeah, it takes a while to read through 159 entries and pass judgment on them, but that’s just what I’ve done.
I know, some of you out there are saying, “But Rena, you’re not a judge.” This is correct. I’m a writer seeking representation, but the last time I dug through a big slush pile, a few things jumped out at me. Two years ago the trends were first person present tense. They were everywhere. Now? Not so much (though many first person present still do the dreaded double verbing, more on that in a bit). (though there were a ton of aliens taking the place that paranormal creatures used to have, so that was interesting)
This time around what struck me most was how some pages DEMANDED my attention, and others just sort of shuffled through the line. What was amazing about the pages that really caught my attention was that they weren’t the usual sort for me. I’ve always called myself an explosion sort of girl, so when something opens with action, I feel like that should grab me. Standing on the edge of a cliff, about to fall to certain doom? That should totally be my wheelhouse, and yet those openings just didn’t do it for me. No idea why (sweet mother of science, I hope I’m not developing a mature palette after all of these years!).
So onto the main event:
I ranked all of the entries: Yes, No, or Maybe. I had grades of maybe (yes maybe, no maybe and maybe), but for this reporting there’s only three flavors.
Entries by Men: 19
Entries by Women: 133
Genres of the Yes
Adult Sci Fi 2
YA MR 2
YA contemp 2
YA Thriller 2
YA Sci Fi 3
MG contemp 3
So what landed someone in the No pile:
Note: If I’m writing about it here, then there was more than one person who did it. As in more than three. If you think I’ve picked you out specifically in my comments here, just know that’s not the case. There were at least three people who did it.
This time around there were two things that drop an entry into my no pile (As in No, I wouldn’t keep reading this). The biggest reason to land in the no pile was a concept I wasn’t that fond of, coupled with writing bad need of an edit. This is my opinion by the way, but if your first page is sprinkled with double verbs and words like ‘that’ and ‘just’ in your first page (in a first page contest!) then it’s VERY likely the rest of the manuscript is going to be like that. I know, some people don’t understand why I’m so anti double verbing, or what it is that I have against the word that (which I use all the time). In this case, it showed a lack of polish.
Double verbs—I was sitting, or I am running—drive me insane because there are specific uses for this construct. In the past tense, I was sitting, it indicates that the person narrating is in a reminiscent sort of mood. This is the older person reliving their past (e.g. I was sitting on the porch, waiting for the mailman, when the man of my dreams strolled down the lane). That’s fine if you are having a character have a stroll down memory lane, but once you do it every turn, you’re sticking the narrator between the reader and the story not once, but twice (it’s filtered through the narrator who is experiencing it and the older narrator who is telling it). And you’ve given something away: the narrator lives to the end so they can tell the story like this. No bueno. In present tense, the problem is that it’s just lazy. I am running. Why not I run. And this next bit is personal to my tastes, but I am running reminds me of those guys who call sporting events. “Hasek blocks the puck and passes it up to Datsyuk. Datsyuk is carrying the puck. He’s looking to make a pass.” This could go on, but I think you get the idea.
Other reasons for landing in the No pile: I get worried when I read a query for something sounding like one genre and being told it’s another. Paranormal romance was the big culprit here. There were all kinds of genres being listed instead of the obvious one. So, if your MC is abducted by aliens who give her werewolf like powers, but it’s scientifically explained, this does not automatically make it science fiction. If the main plot is about how your MC falls in love with someone despite her mutations, it’s romance. And if your query spends more than half its time talking about the romance, I’m assuming that romance is more than half the book, it should be listed in the genre.
Why does this make me hit the no button? Either, the writer knows they’ve written a paranormal romance, and they know the market for that genre is really REALLY tight, or they don’t. If they know, then the real path isn’t to accentuate the romance in the query letter. Develop other lines, because the surest way to upset a reader is to tell them about how a story is all about space ships and genetic mutations and then make it all about romance. That’s the whole point of genre labeling. I don’t go to the romance section to read about Rockets, and I don’t expect the romance crowd to come to the sci fi section to find true love. Genres are your friend, even if it’s super crowded. If the writer doesn’t know that they’ve written a paranormal romance and dressed it up in super shiny Magic Realism clothing, then I worry about how many other traps they’ve fallen into. This is all about confidence, but if you write, you must read. You need to know what else is out there like yours (this is why I read slush piles whenever they’re available, how else will we know what we’re up against in the slush?).
What got you in the maybe pile:
Okay concept, okay writing. Nothing spectacular. Totally competent. And yet, somehow, my time wasn’t demanded of me (I’m a working mom, you have to demand my time). So there were lots of really good entries that land in the maybe pile because they aren’t for me, they started in the wrong spot (or with something that I really didn’t want to read).
Or really good concept, but very lackluster writing.
Terrible concept with really good writing.
At the end of the day, your creature feature has a ton of competition (and I’ve read a bunch of them!), and even if your writing is really great, I’m not that interested in reading another Interview with a Vampire (or Twilight, or Walking Dead, or Teen Wolf, or Buffy The Vampire Slayer—Unless Joss is writing it, that is, and then yeah, I’m totally reading that one). So yeah, even if the writing is too good to just toss it into the No, sometimes, it’s just not going to be enough to knock one of the Yes entries off their thrones.
And to get a Yes:
The writing had to sing. I don’t know how many of you can see it yet (if you read enough slush, it become apparent), but some manuscripts just sound like the stuff you would pick up in the book store. There is a rhythm, a cadence, to the way they read. The words are the perfect balance of not too many to slow me down, and not so few that I’ve gotten lost along the way.
*Sigh* I wish there were something more to say about that, but trust me, you’ll know it when you see it. But here’s the thing: that perfect balance is DIFFERENT for EVERYONE. Yeah, I know. Like for real. I’ll read something and it will just punch me in the feels. Great writing, lovely concept, brilliant execution, and I hand it to my BFFs don’t like it. Go figure.
The other way to get a Yes was to have a SPECTACULAR concept—one that made me go into fits of apoplexy because I couldn’t read the post RIGHT NOW!!!!—coupled with almost there writing. As in, just a few bits of trouble.
So that’s it from my end. I’m going to post after the 10th to talk about subjectivity, when I compare my Yes pile to those who get picked for the contest. The last time I did this, I was shocked to discover that an entry that yeses with exclamation points next to it in my book, didn’t make the final (and one where I’d written in capital letters NO) did.
I know people are probably wondering where they landed on my scale of Yes No Maybe, but, I rarely tell the actual rank. I will if you ask nicely, but seeing as how I am just one writer in a sea of other writers, my opinion doesn’t really count for much. However, I do have comments on EACH and EVERY entry (unless it’s locked up under tumblr. Cursed tumblr). If you want to know what I thought of yours, leave me a comment with your entry number and your email (write the word at instead of using the sign, and you can ask me to delete the comment later if you wish). This isn’t confidential (feel free to post it somewhere else while saying disparaging things about my parents’ marital status if you like), but I prefer for the option of privacy to be yours (this is why I don’t tweet my feedback; there is nothing worse than expecting someone to love your work and hearing in a public venue that it wasn’t the case). But pretty please, don’t come back at me with your hurt feelings. I’ll try to say constructive things, but feedback can really sting. I know what it’s like to write a novel. I know what it’s like to have the core of a novel completely destroyed because it’s basically a retelling of XYZ and there are fifty billion of those on the market right now. Please also keep in mind that I’m just one person. I’m not even an agented writer. All I have is years of experience, and the knowledge of what I do and do not like.
Good luck everyone.